The Smiths always seem to be a band that gets slightly forgotten in the pantheon of truly great British bands. Whenever that sort of list gets put together, acts such as The Beatles
, Pink Floyd
, and Black Sabbath
all immediately jump to mind, whereas The Smiths are generally overlooked; something that can probably be attributed to their comparative failure in the US market, especially when put next to their success in the United Kingdom. Because, make no mistake about it, if every decade throws up a handful of bands that perfectly sum up life within that country at the time, then The Smiths are almost certainly the best of the 1980s as far as Britain is concerned. The combination of frontman Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr bears comparison to the duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, not least because of their ability to work together, and create some truly great pop songs in the process.
If you want evidence of this, just look at the opening 7 tracks of this compilation. From the opening track, Panic
, it's immediately obvious that Morrissey's brilliantly cynical lyrics stretch far beyond those which many artists try and write. However, although that makes it sound as if the typical song by the band could easily be a Roger Waters-esque vitriolic attack on the public at large, it's far from the case, as Johnny Marr possesses a unique gift for setting his frontman's words to jangly pop riffs, which sometimes seem intentionally reminiscent of previous ages of pop music. This means that quite a lot of the songs on here sound at first listen as if they can just flow past you, with Morrissey sounding indifferent to the problems he's singing about. After all, what other singer could turn a chant of "Hang the DJ" into something that sounds not only rational, but a pleasant thing to do?
While a large number of songs by the band fall into this category though, it would be a gross oversimplification to lumber them with this tag. Because although they were undoubtedly a supremely talented pop act, they also are more than capable of making melodramatically moody songs that sound as if Morrissey is a hybrid of a new age prophet, as well as the student that never quite grew up; indeed, one of the "criticisms" most frequently hurled at The Smiths is that they are the archetypal student band. On songs such as the darkly anthemic How Soon Is Now?
where Johnny Marr's famous guitar effect lifts the song to the ranks of one of their most known (for those of you who don't know it, the effect sounds something like a train rushing past you), Morrissey's dire prediction of, "I am the son and heir of nothing in particular" sums up mid-1980s Thatcherite Britain in a way that no amount of words can match: a simple statement betraying a deep, but yet somehow indifferent malaise at the state of the world.
So, leaving aside the quality of the band, why should you buy this CD, given the vast number of other compilations of the band's music? For a start, it's not just a singles compilation, which immediately elevates it above some of the albums lurking out there. Although The Smiths undoubtedly released great singles, they're a band that also makes incredible albums, which is why it's worth any fan of the band picking up their 4 studio albums, rather than merely dealing with compilations. On this album, gems from albums are included, which otherwise wouldn't have got the attention they undoubtedly deserve. Unlike the album Louder Than Bombs
, this also includes material from what many consider the band's best album, The Queen Is Dead
, which, more than any other album, is an essential purchase for those looking to get into the band.
Naturally enough though, there are downsides as well. Although this doesn't suffer as much from one of the problems of Louder Than Bombs
, namely that there's almost too much material here, with a running time of over 78 minutes, the album starts flagging a bit towards the end, meaning that maybe the tracklisting could have been altered a bit, although it's good to see that this isn't just a cash in album. Again, the fact that material from all of the band's album is included is what, in my opinion, makes this a better purchase than Louder Than Bombs
, as obviously the length of the album is attenuated by the fact that there's simply more of a diverse group of songs here. Also, there's obviously arguments over the tracklisting itself, as there would be with any greatest hits album, with my personal feelings being that there's a definite argument for including more material that shows Morrissey's pronounced sense of humour, such as Vicar In A Tutu
Back onto the music, and something that's frequently forgotten behind the creative duo of Morrissey and Marr is the effect that Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce have on the band. Although there are very few songs that they're immediately noticeable on, they're one of the great rhythm sections of indie music, providing the most solid of backings to the craftsmanship of Johnny Marr, and allowing the band's sound to develop. Particularly on songs such as That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore
, where what's a relatively mediocre Smiths song is kept alive by Joyce's inventive, and somewhat atypical drumming, it's apparent that although two members of the band will be remembered more than the other two, The Smiths were very much a team, perhaps explaining Morrissey's comparative failure in his solo career, which is very hit and miss compared to the overall quality of The Smiths.
But although Joyce, Rourke and Marr in particular need to be appreciated if you're properly to understand The Smiths, there's no disputing who the real star of the show is. Morrissey, although far from your typical rock star, still has some of the most rabid fans of anyone from the alternative music scene in Britain, and this appeal can be traced back to his music and persona from this era. With that famous quiff, it would be easy to assume that he was a vain pop star, although in fact he's one of the great anti-heroes of British music, and clearly influenced artists such as Thom Yorke, and, in terms of non-mainstream appeal, Michael Stipe. He's also got an extraordinary voice, which ranges from languid renditions of his lyrics, to a croon that somehow fits with the music, to surprising yodels, which completely take the listener by surprise. In other words, there's far more to him than first meets the eye, and the same's true of this album, where, particularly if you're new to the band, it taking a few listens to get used to his unusual style of singing.
In summary, if you're new to The Smiths, this is a compilation that is definitely worth buying. As one of the best, and most influential British bands of the last 30 years, they're also one of the most culturally significant, and this album features many of their best moments. However, although it's a good starting point for the band, all of their albums, in particularly the self-titled debut, and The Queen Is Dead
, show a depth to their music that doesn't fully come across here. However, the fact remains that even if you simply want a collection of the best songs by the band on one disc, this CD is better than most, and as good as any to buy.
Final Rating: 4.3/5
I Know It's Over
. You know what I was saying about Morrissey's sense of humour? If you're listening to this song, forget it. Easily one of the most depressing songs ever recorded by the band, everything here takes a back seat to Morrissey's plaintively mournful lyrics, which could easily be directed at himself in lines such as "If you're so very entertaining, why are you on your own tonight?". It provides a great example of his quality as a lyricist, but if you're already feeling down, this is genuinely not a song that you should be listening to.
. As I already said, this is one of the best examples of the band's talent for creating counter-anthems, with Morrissey's lyrics singing of panic on the streets of various UK cities, in an ironic attack on British culture, moaning of the music being constantly played saying nothing about his life. And then, of course, theirs the final "Hang the DJ" sequence. A great stomp through an indie pop anthem.
How Soon Is Now?
. A definite contender for the most famous song the group recorded, it's also one of their moody best, with the music rumbling below Morrissey in the mix, with a whole load of distortion amid Johnny Marr's effects. It's also one of the longer songs they recorded, which goes well as compared to some of the shorter pop songs on here. And, as I said, the lyrics are pure brilliance.